Last fall I wrote a piece about the depressing job prospects for students graduating from aviation trade schools. After a couple of years and a hundred thousand dollars or so, these graduates are heading off to an uncertain career market. I take that back. Right now it is certain, certain to be bad for the foreseeable future. Not that there aren’t jobs available for young people (or not so young people). There are some jobs out there flying commuter airliners, starting in the right seat and working your way up from there.
The remarkable thing about those jobs is that anybody will take them. They pay so poorly, little more than $15,000 a year for many starting first officers, that the only people who can afford to take them are people who have nothing to begin with. These are typically very young people or those so desperate to fly that they’re willing to work for less than survival wages to stay in the air some way. The career move is a huge gamble. Will these jobs, that pay roughly as much as migrant workers make, pay off in better paying positions down the line? Maybe. Maybe not. But when you, or mom and dad, have already sunk a hundred grand or more in a career path, there tends to be some motivation to stick with it.
The root of the problem is with the regional airlines. They’ve figured out a way to game the employment market by offering next to nothing to pilots while still knowing that they’ll not only get applicants, but a glut of applicants. They can pay a pittance for pilots who are willing to do the job with hopes of getting on with a major airline down the road.
I'd be all for letting market forces straigten things out--after all, nobody has to take these jobs--if it weren't for the negative impact on safety of putting in the cockpit of a jet a couple of lightly experienced pilots who live under economic conditions that almost guarantee fatigue and low morale. What will happen? Buffalo will happen. Lexington will happen. Can the commuter airlines, which are desperate and existing on the edge themselves, live with a crash like that every few years?
It sure seems like it, and that cynical attitude is dead wrong and it’s time we did something about it.
I say forget about requiring more hours for commuter pilots, or an ATP, and get down to a genuine economic incentive: a minimum wage for pilots.
Now, I’m against a minimum wage for professionals in principle, but here it’s the only solution that makes sense. We’ve long had federal minimum wages for the most humble of workers. That’s because, when jobs are desirable, employers will pay less than what’s humane. Minimum wage laws are designed to protect the poorest of the poor from their own desperation.
That’s what we need to do for pilots by instituting a minimum annual salary of, say $50,000 a year, maybe a little more. The labor market would change overnight, as a lot of highly experienced, highly qualified pilots who can’t afford to take a job in the cockpit today would raise their hands immediately. Then the commuter airlines would hire them. Despite appearances, they do care about safety, though not quite as much, apparently, as turning a profit. Force their hand by mandating a living wage and they’ll hire the best pilots available. The flying public and the pilots who fly them deserve nothing less.